The Tampa Bay Lightning have taken a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Florida Panthers by virtue of their 5-1 victory Sunday afternoon. The Lightning have limited the scoring chances of the high-scoring Panthers while getting production from multiple players.
Their success has been due to a very workmanlike effort from everyone on the team with a strong focus on defense. While the phrase “defense wins championships” might be a cliche, it has been proven to be quite accurate as the Lightning move closer to a third straight Stanley Cup. This postseason, they have handcuffed two of the league’s top power-play units in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida. They have accomplished this in a workmanlike way, sacrificing their bodies to block shots and take away passing lanes, as exemplified by these three players.
There was a reason why Pat Maroon, Steven Stamkos, and other veterans pushed for the Lightning to sign Corey Perry last offseason. Maroon, a former teammate of Perry in Anaheim, knew firsthand what the 2011 Hart Trophy winner could bring to the team. The veteran stepped up when Brayden Point was injured, as it was Perry who was placed in the slot on the Lightning’s power play. With the first goal on Sunday, he has scored 13 career game-opening goals in the playoffs. This is second among active players, with only Sidney Crosby having more. His biggest goal of the playoffs might have happened when he tied the score in Game 1, shortly after Florida had threatened to take a two-goal lead. Perry continues to give the Lightning big moments in big games.
It is of little wonder that Perry was assigned to be an alternate captain early on in the season. His experience and grit have followed him at all levels of his hockey career. He is one of just six active players with 50 or more career playoff goals and the 62nd player in NHL history to reach that mark. Besides his power-play goal in Game 2, it was a big hit that he delivered on MacKenzie Weeger that sent a message to the Panthers, and gave a jolt of confidence to his team.
Cirelli did not have a point in Sunday’s game, but it was a few other stats that made contributions to the Lightning’s blue-collar effort. He lead the team in hits with five and was second among the forwards with just over 22 minutes on ice. He gets this time because the coaching staff and teammates recognize him as one of the most dependable players on the team. This is because he has quietly become one of the best two-way forwards in the league. He contributes to both the penalty kill and the power play because he is someone who is not afraid to do the dirty work on these units.
Another thing that did not appear on the stat sheet, but was vital to the team effort, was his role in Nikita Kucherov’s goal in Game 1 that gave the Lightning a two-goal lead. It was Cirelli, who was working hard in front of the net distracting Panther netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, helping to shield Kucherov’s wrister. It was so close that the play went to a video review for goaltender interference, but the goal stood. It’s not like he doesn’t score goals either. His spin-o-rama goal in Game 6 in the Toronto series was one of the team’s most memorable plays this season.
Usually, Cernak is the guy blocking shots in front of the net. On Sunday, he added his name to the scoresheet by netting the Lightning’s second goal of the game, his first of the post-season. After the game, Cernak commented on his goal. “It feels amazing. I don’t always score a lot of goals, so this one is special for me, but I’m glad for a win. Everybody did a good job tonight.”
Cernak has survived a very physically painful start to this series. He missed the third period of Game 1 after blocking a Brandon Montour shot late in the second. In the first period of Game 2, he took a puck to the face and left the game, returning later in the second. Just another day at the office for Cirelli.
The methodical, business-like approach to this series is one of the biggest reasons the Lightning are up 3-0. Not only do the Lightning know this, but so do the Panthers. After the game, Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said of the Lightning. “They’ve just got a little more will. When there’s a loose puck, they’re kind of outbattling us. They want it a little bit more.” This sums up the reason why the workmanlike Lightning are ready to sweep the series against a team that most thought would end their chance for a third Stanley Cup.
The Lightning will look to finish the job in Game 4, which takes place on Monday evening in Tampa.